“Do you like McDonald’s?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Do you want to go there now?”
“Absolutely not. Why do you think that’s a good idea?”
This was a conversation I had a few years ago with Philip. I think he offered some kind of half thought out explanation about the convenience of the drive-thru, an explanation that didn’t mean anything to him or me, but which was practical and easy to say and which was a sort of tool to dampen any further prying interest I might have in the topic or his interests. I could tell he was being avoidant and nothing would stand in the way of his fetishistic drive so I remained incredulous of his reasoning even as I watched him order his food, pick it up, check inside the bag as though it fucking mattered whether or not his order was correct, and drive away to eat his effortless meal in isolation. I am the easiest person in the world, but, compared to watching Philip at the McDonald’s, if I had witnessed him purchase heroin, I would have only been half as bothered. There was a certain irony he wasn’t unaware of in what he was doing, but that was only a cover being in his mid-20′s afforded him and since I was just as young as he was I found it a flimsy one. I could see that basically Philip was just very much enjoying himself in the McDonald’s drive-thru, and that he was obviously a pervert and fetishist and lacked good taste and didn’t give a shit about the environment or the economy and fuck him. Harsh I know, but we live in a polarizing time so what can I say? In any event, go fuck yourself.
After a few years of just total bafflement at the sudden McDonald’s fascination, and not really accepting my first diagnosis that he was a pervert to fully describe the event, and after all I really love Philip and didn’t want to hate him for something as silly as indulging in McDonald’s every now and again, I put more thought into the attraction. I began to ponder conclusions and took my time arriving at them and after a while of ordering my thoughts, I began to lend them to constructing a narrative. While I’m well aware that psycho-analysis as a form of treatment for disorders has more or less fallen out of fashion and conversely most folks these days probably don’t have the time, patience or sense of self-importance to have long, semi-irrational talks about their dreams and fears in any substantial way, I am not one of them. I like to talk, and I like to plot points out on graphs, and that is what I did with Philip and his miserable McDonald’s obsession. My conclusions are probably quite simplistic compared to those developed during an actual psychoanalysis session, but I am no professional. Actually, now that I think about it, and if I’m being honest, I feel there is probably much more behind Philip’s McDonald’s fascination than I would ever care to articulate, and I’m sure much of it is probably not my business anyway, and the conclusions I drew about Philip, in the final estimation, are basically a generous way of explaining a cataloging project I concocted while thinking about the nature of his personality and his obsessions.
In the eyes of Philip, who couldn’t care less what anyone thought of his good or bad taste or whether I considered him a sophisticated consumer, McDonald’s was a project for him—what did McDonald’s feel like, what did it look like, what did it taste like, what was the attraction for him and for others?
In his eyes, McDonald’s was a colorful, pungent place with pretty girls and a fun, easy way to order MSG laden foods for not very much money. It was not the awful progenitor of mass produced lard-food and lard-culture that stands as a symbol for so much that is wrong with corporate America and America generally. He would go there to indulge regardless of what it meant based on how it felt. I think he had forgotten, intentionally forgotten for the sake of following his own instincts, what McDonald’s meant. He was seeing the place as though for the first time. The mechanism at work here was one of discovery by way of severing ties with an adolescence characterized by vague political and social concerns that were obviously outdated in terms of their place in Philip’s personal life. “Why do I hate McDonald’s?” is a question he may have asked himself. In order to answer that question with any honesty–and with new eyes–he had to do it as a new person who subscribed to a more courageous, less orthodox, less structured belief system. As a white American male in his mid-twenties, with serious artistic ambition, an ambition throughout the ages that often leads to a personal confrontation of some kind with the astringent meta-beliefs of a younger, bourgeois white American male self, Philip was emphatically embarking on a road towards artistic enlightenment and maturity. He was like a DH Lawrence protagonist come out of the North to make a name for himself in London–except American and more interested in eating at a McDonald’s than sexual symbolism. The examination of any artist who suddenly has a craving for McDonald’s inevitably leads to paradox after paradox … In a totally paradoxical way, this pursuit of freedom by Philip, a freedom from his personal past and anachronistic thought patterns, led him to McDonald’s—a symbol of everything that is fucking not free about the USA and exemplary of adolescence immaturity. Which is funny … But, certainly, a paradox like that is the point. Philip’s symbolist phase was over. He was moving into his more mature, more engaged and yet simultaneously more apolitical phase.
In any event, I admire Philip’s attitude, however misguided it is. Simply put, I feel there is something to be gained by opting to view familiar things and things that we have mentally roped off and verboten gemacht with new and non-discriminating eyes. In the summer of 2013, I drove myself and all of my possessions to Seattle from New Orleans, the first metro I’d lived in since sinking 4 years of my life into an English Literature degree. These are two American cities with little in common and yet what they do have in common are American things—American people, faucets, doorknobs, light sockets, and interstate systems bordered by fast food franchises and chain hotels. These things don’t interest me or excite me in any way. I am not much of a fetishist, and I am not interested in boring, stupid shit. I certainly don’t see McDonald’s as anything more than a grease stain on the cotton briefs of a nation of shitheads. And yet, and yet, and yet …
I have a plan, for the sake of experience and for the appeasement of an unrefined cultural prurience in me, to write restaurant and hotel reviews of the places where I eat and sleep. These will inevitably be typical American places, places that we are all familiar with, by sight, smell, and feeling, and which we take for granted and dislike and throw millions and millions of dollars at all the while complaining that America is such a superficial place with crap food and crap aesthetics. Well, I’m done complaining.
Hopefully, the reviews I compile, featuring my own descriptions and insights, can help re-imagine these places and see them without context of any kind—the way Philip under duress of his own instincts saw McDonald’s.
Dairy Queen Exit 540 off of I-20 between Shreveport and Dallas
At this point on my trip, my A/C compressor had blown and my engine was whining. This was the first leg of my trip, and I’m not surprised. It felt appropriate. It even felt fateful. So I took the sudden loss of A/C as a sign. It was time to pull over and grab a bite to eat. Ostensibly in the middle of nowhere, or at the very least caught between two somewheres, I would take the first thing that came my way. That would be the DQ. That is how the DQ works, I think. A large, ubiquitous fast food franchise that seems to be everywhere you need it to be, its presence unless you’re looking for it, is too easy to ignore. By the time I park, I’m sweating too much, and all I really want is to get out of the car and find some A/C. Again, it is for times like this the DQ exists. There is a tradition of reliability and familiarity and community I sense just walking through its Texan doors.
The A/C is unsurprisingly and thankfully on full blast. The floor is red tile with black grout. Booths of primary colors blue, yellow and red line the windowed wall facing the parking lot. I order from a 16 year old girl with braces who is inherently a more mature person than I will ever be, take my number and sit at a blue booth. The DQ serves cookout food. It is a permanent 4th of July cookout. The utensils I am given are a white plastic fork and knife, and my chili dog is presented to me on a plastic tray in a red and white checkered box. I ordered what’s called the XL chili dog. The chili dog only comes in XL. The XL is a long thin, boiled wiener covered in chili, topped with shredded cheddar, diced purple onions and mustard. All of this gives me heartburn, a mild headache and next to zero energy. It’s very, very cheap. It cost about $6.00 which includes fries and a supersized drink. My disappointment reminds to consider where I am which reminds that I have already failed my experiment and that Philip is a truly unique and deranged person.
I’m aware that the folks responsible for how the DQ is marketed and the way its franchises feel are all at once preserving old aesthetics while furthering a brand built on representing those old fashioned American aesthetics and which is really just ripping them off and as the market changes so will their marketing strategy. And yet, it feels to me that if they didn’t seek to preserve that brand, who else would, and if no one did, wouldn’t we all wonder where it went? And yet, it was clear that this DQ was frequented by locals who were familiar and more often than not friendly with each other and so it carried an air of the local flavor and though it is a franchise it is not perceived that way by the people who work there or who frequent it. Even so, despite what I have just fucking said, this place was obviously a fucking chain restaurant, and, to be fair, the irony of being in a DQ in the 2010’s, an era of smartphones and for the first time in the history of mankind instant world wide access to news and information, wasn’t too far from anybody’s mind when I’m over here snapping pictures of my chili dog and a retiree in the next booth is on an Macintosh reading emails.
Best Western Clarendon, TX on US-81 in the Texas panhandle
Massive crickets slam into my car as I pull into the bright roundabout to inquire about vacancies. The countryside around the motel is frighteningly bleak and every so often lightning strikes the ground. The Clarendon Best Western is a well-lit, 2 story building of about 50 rooms. The single room I take is fucking huge. It has two beds, which is pointless, and while I feel the front desk attendant is being spiteful by giving a single guy a double room and thereby depriving other latecomers with larger parties of more appropriate accommodations, I am pleased by her shittiness. Apparently, there was a workout room. I didn’t bother taking a look. It was closed when I got in around 9 PM, and I have no intention of working out the morning of a day I plan to drive for at least 10 hours. Outside of the desk attendant’s bitter feelings towards guests who don’t yet exist, there is nothing particularly interesting or evocative in this place. I try to feel the place with a quick tour of the lobby and the empty dining hall, but there is nothing to feel. It is air-conditioned and beige which isn’t a criticism. It is accessible. Irony isn’t present in the decor, and while the desk attendant’s behavior is not without a very direct ironic characteristic, the place is primarily modest and makes only a minimal effort. This isn’t Fawlty fucking Towers, for God’s sake. There is nothing in Clarendon, TX save for a busy highway. Consequently, this Best Western is a place that must be understood in terms of the human traffic leaving Texas on the way to the coast or the mountains. Without that context, it is pointless and would soon be out of business anyway. The motel is a totally reflexive building built on a totally reflexive idea of lucrative accommodation and location. In other words, the soullessness of this place isn’t cruel. It is a modest soullessness that I am perhaps confusing with meekness. Bored by the staidness, in any event, I realize I am at a halfway point again. I am leaving the South behind, and I am entering the West, a land of speculation, a land of here and now, but I am not there yet.
The double room I inherit from the deprived non-existent guests is decorated with paintings that have a bucolic theme. Each of them features a gurgling brook with expansive hinterland and cows. The room’s furniture is a sort of hodge-podge of functionality. Under the writing table, is a swivel office chair that doesn’t fit. It is probably comfortable enough, but it certainly this isn’t the correct way to use either the chair or the desk.
Those kinds of things are forgiven, but the room is not clean, and that’s basically unforgiveable (not that I am surprised). There is spilled coffee on the nightstand which had dried and sort of congealed. Personally, the dried coffee didn’t particularly bother me. What bothered me was something the hotel couldn’t have fixed even had I asked them to. The bed was uncomfortable. There were too many pillows and it was fixed so that the sheets were almost impossible to fully apprehend and bring up to my shoulders. I didn’t sleep well and woke with a headache, but that was due mostly to dehydration because as I mentioned my car’s A/C was kaput, and I was sweating a lot since the temperatures in this part of Texas in the summer of 2013 were record shatteringly high … which isn’t ironic at all, just bad luck.